A New Beat

The Tin Drum

by Günter Grass
Pantheon, $6.95

Oskar Matzerath, the narrator and protagonist of Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum, is a thirty-year-old hump-backed inmate of a mental hospital. Born in the city of Danzig in 1924, Oskar was “one of those clairaudient infants whose mental development is completed at birth and after that merely needs a certain amount of filling in.” The son of petty bourgeois shopkeeping parents, Oskar hears two things immediately after he is born: first his father’s statement that his son will take over the store when he grows up. The next words are his mother’s: “When little Oskar is three, he will have a toy drum.” Oskar quickly comes to a decision that he “would never under any circumstances be a grocer, that I would stop right there, remain as I was—and so I did.” On his third birthday, he gets his toy drum, flings himself down a flight of stairs, and stops growing—and for many years thereafter “I not only stayed the same size but clung to the same attire.” In order to be “exempted from the big and little catechism,” in order to “avoid playing the cash register,” Oskar makes the modern grand refusal: he refuses to “grow up.” He remains a three-year-old drummer—superior, detached, demonic, complete in his deformity.

The Tin Drum is divided into three parts. The first deals with the life and adventures of Oskar, his family and their circle of acquaintances in Danzig, and ends in 1939. The second part concerns the War; and part three is an account of Oskar’s experiences in post-war Germany and Europe, “the middle-class paradise we are living in today.” The central undertaking of this novel, in other words, is to deal with Nazi Germany from the inside, a field of experience which has thus far proved inaccessible to the literary imagination. And it does so by taking and developing as its point of view that one part of the human constitution which remains least touched by politics, most resistant to civilization in any form, and in its untouchability and resistance incorruptibly human—the primitive unconscious, the id. On one side Oskar represents this force—mad, selfish, insatiable, indifferent to the commands and sanctions of society. Existing in a state of anarchic and pre-moral savagery, he remains peculiarly remote from the organized and post-moral cannibalism into which modern German civilization propelled itself. The dialectic of The Tin Drum consists of the interplay between the irrational energies of Oskar and the irrational energies of the modern social world, energies which do not merely negate each other but oddly act as counterparts as well.

This account distorts and simplifies and omits a good deal; The Tin Drum is a large book, and the conception of Oskar is not to be exhausted by such a summary. It may, however, serve to suggest something of this work’s tone and quality. The Tin Drum is a novel which has a genuine concern for society, but it dramatizes that concern largely by means of devices which we associate with the…

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